Coke Zero 400 - Qualifying

Will Tony Stewart finally break Daytona 500 jinx on Sunday?

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – What should potentially be one of the biggest storylines heading into Sunday’s 56th Daytona 500 hasn’t even registered a blip on the NASCAR media radar this year.

With so much attention focused on Austin Dillon bringing the legendary No. 3 back to the Sprint Cup Series after a 13-year absence and then putting it on the pole for Sunday’s race, the media seem to have forgotten an almost equally important story.

Tony Stewart will make his 16th consecutive career start in the Daytona 500 this Sunday, making him third among active drivers with the most starts without a win in the field for the Great American Race.

Terry Labonte, who has announced that Sunday will be his final career start at Daytona, tops the list with 32 starts in the 500 without a win. Brother Bobby will make his 22nd start on Sunday without a win in the big race.

Over the last four or five 500s, Stewart has come into Speedweeks as arguably one of the key focal points of media attention not because of what he’s done, but what he’s not done.

But no one is talking about Stewart’s 0-for-15 record in this year’s edition of Speedweeks.

Stewart comes into Sunday as essentially the Dale Earnhardt of his generation when it comes to Daytona 500 success. After years of frustration, Earnhardt finally won his first – and ultimately only – Daytona 500 in his 20th try in 1998.

At the same time, Stewart, a winner of 48 career races in 521 starts on the Cup circuit, is somewhat of a paradox.

It’s not that he’s a bad driver at Daytona. In 30 career Cup starts there, he has four wins, but all have come in summer’s Coca Zero 400. Stewart also has nine top-5 and 14 top-10 finishes on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway.

He also has seven Nationwide Series wins there.

After four top-five and three other top-10 finishes in an eight-year stretch of the 500 from 2002 through 2009 (he also finished a career-worse 43rd in 2007), Stewart has struggled in the last four editions of the Great American Race: 22nd (2010), 13th (2011), 16th (2012) and his second-worst finish in the race, 41st, last season.

“You look at marquee events around the world, and not only NASCAR but in all of motorsports – the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 24 Hours At Daytona, the Indy 500, the Knoxville Nationals – and to be a driver that can cross off one of those marquee events as a winner, that cements your legacy in motorsports,” Stewart said. “To be able to win the Daytona 500 is the ultimate dream of a racecar driver.”

A Daytona 500 win is unquestionably “No. 1” on his bucket list, Stewart said.

“I may never get a chance to run in those other marquee events, so that’s why it puts the Daytona 500 at the top, because it’s something that we actually have a shot at,” Stewart said, referring again to Le Mans, the Indy 500, etc. “But it is hard. It’s a hard race, and it’s not like you get to come back next week and try it again if you don’t accomplish it. You get one shot a year to accomplish this goal.”

With Sunday being Stewart’s first official points-paying Cup race since last summer’s wreck in a sprint car race that resulted in a severely broken leg and caused him to miss the final 15 races of the season, a win Sunday would be all the more sweeter.

That’s not to say Stewart hasn’t come close to winning NASCAR’s biggest race. He was runner-up in the 2004 race and third in 2002 and 2008.

The latter finish still eats at Stewart six years later, when he watched Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch make a last lap charge past him to the checkered flag to finish 1-2.

“I’ve run that race over in my mind a million times on what I thought I could’ve done differently,” Stewart said. “If it would’ve been the Daytona 498, I had it won. I was forced to make a decision of whether I was going to put my whole race in jeopardy to win it, or know that I was getting passed but I may have a shot to get it back in the end.

“I took the safer route, and I wish I would’ve thrown caution to the wind. I think I would’ve rather crashed out of it knowing that I did everything I could, but I wasn’t sure that if I made the move to block Ryan to get in front of him – they were coming at such a high rate of speed – I was probably going to crash half the field if I moved.

“That decision to play it safe has haunted me ever since. So, if that situation happens again, I may come back on a hook, but at least I can say I know I did everything I could do to give myself that shot.”

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Vettel disappointed to finish behind Red Bulls in Malaysia F1 qualifying

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Sebastian Vettel was left disappointed following qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix on Saturday at Sepang after finishing behind both Red Bull drivers in Q3.

Vettel took his first Formula 1 victory for Ferrari in Malaysia last year, but has failed to reach the top step of the podium in 2016 as the team has slipped behind Red Bull in the pecking order.

With Mercedes dominating proceedings in Malaysia over one lap, Vettel had hoped to finish as the best of the rest in qualifying.

However, the German could only finish fifth in Q3, over seven-tenths of a second behind pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton and just two-tenths off P3 on the grid.

“We expected it to be tight, but we thought that we could have the upper hand in the end,” Vettel said.

“So I am disappointed to see both Red Bulls in front of us, but they were just a bit quicker. There was not a lot missing, but just enough, just over a tenth.

“We need to have a look into our data and see if we can pick it up later. In the end, we were hoping to be one row higher up, so in second, right behind the Mercedes.

“But for the race, nervertheless, we should have a good speed: the strategy will also be important tomorrow.

“There is a bit of room for manoeuvre, as everybody has to use the harder tire, which might make it interesting. And then there is also the fact that we are in Malaysia, so there might be some rain, or just the heat as a factor.”

Teammate Kimi Raikkonen qualified sixth in the second SF16-H car, the Finn left frustrated by traffic during his final qualifying attempt.

“It was a pretty smooth running until the last try: then I had some traffic on the out lap and struggled with the tires to make them work in the first two corners, so I ran a bit wide,” Raikkonen explained.

“It was a decent qualifying session but it’s painful when you have such a bad last try. The handling of the car has been pretty ok and I was hoping for a bit more, but tomorrow we’ll try to do better.

“We don’t know what will happen and obviously we are not in the ideal starting position. The tarmac is new so it’s hard to say where it’s going to go and which tire will be the best, it will be a lot down to the conditions.

“We have to do our own best and see what that brings in the race.”

The Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 2am ET on Sunday.

Formula V8 3.5 to race at COTA next year, supporting WEC round

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The Formula V8 3.5 Series will race at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas the first time next year in support of the FIA World Endurance Championship weekend in September.

Formula V8 3.5 is currently embarking on its inaugural campaign, emerging from the ashes of the Formula Renault 3.5 series in 2015 after it lost manufacturer backing.

Earlier this year, it was announced that the single-seater series would be linking up with the WEC in 2017 as a support championship, appearing on the undercard at six rounds.

On Saturday, series officials confirmed that as well as racing at Silverstone, Spa and the Nürburgring alongside WEC, Formula V8 3.5 would also be visiting Austin, Mexico City and Bahrain in 2017.

Fuji Speedway in Japan had originally been slated to host a round of the 3.5-litre series, only for the race to be moved to Austin on grounds of costs.

During its Formula Renault 3.5 days, the championship produced a number of current Formula 1 drivers including Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo, Kevin Magnussen and Carlos Sainz Jr. Its final champion was Oliver Rowland, who now races in GP2.

The addition of Formula V8 3.5 to the WEC weekend at COTA ensures that the endurance series will not race alone following the break-up of the Lone Star Le Mans double-header with IMSA for 2017.

Rosberg rues Q3 mistakes after missing out on Malaysia pole

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg was left ruing two mistakes during the final part of Formula 1 qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix on Saturday after missing out on pole position at Sepang.

Rosberg arrived in Malaysia leading the F1 drivers’ championship for the first time since the middle of July following a string of victories in Belgium, Italy and Singapore.

Rosberg led the opening practice session on Friday, but struggled to match the pace of Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton through FP2 and FP3 before falling behind once again in qualifying.

An error on his first Q3 lap left Rosberg fifth on the provisional grid before rallying with his second effort to lift himself onto the front row, albeit with another mistake at the final corner to finish four-tenths of a second behind Hamilton.

“Lewis’ lap was very quick so it was always going to be difficult. I would have come close but unfortunately I had a mistake in the last corner,” Rosberg said.

“Something just wasn’t going right there in that last corner, I just couldn’t get the settings right, I was always getting an oversteer moment into there.

“But anyway, second place, we’ll live with that now. As we know from this year, second place does not mean that victory is not possible tomorrow. We’ve seen that so many times. Still very optimistic for tomorrow.”

The Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 2am ET on Sunday.

Hamilton: Emphatic Malaysia pole lap ‘could have been faster’

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 01:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates qualifying on pole position in parc ferme during qualifying for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on October 1, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton believes that his emphatic Q3 lap that secured him pole position for Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix “could have been faster”.

Hamilton stormed to his fourth Formula 1 pole in Malaysia in the past five years on Saturday at the Sepang International Circuit, recording a fastest lap time of 1:32.850 to beat Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg by four-tenths of a second.

“Just a huge thank you to the team who continue through the whole year to improve,” Hamilton said after the session.

“To come here, this year it’s the best the car has been here, and of course this year the tires are obviously better.

“Great work done coming into this weekend and over the past few weeks with Nico’s wins, but today the car felt fantastic. I really enjoyed the lap.”

The lap was the fastest at Sepang since qualifying for the 2005 race, but when asked about it, Hamilton wryly said it “could have been faster.”

The Briton locked up on his second flying lap towards the end of Q3, forcing him to abort his run early and settle for his first effort in the session.

“Of course I’m very happy and grateful for my lap but you always want to finish the last lap. I think there’s more time there,” Hamilton said, before expressing his wariness over Red Bull and Ferrari’s race pace.

“I think tomorrow, provided the conditions are like this, the track is generally better. It’s a lot smoother and seems to work better with the tires than it has in recent years.

“It will be a close race for sure because I think they had very good long runs, but I think we were looking quite strong also.”

The Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 2am ET on Sunday.